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The True Nature of Christian Perfection

In this chapter, Garrigou-Lagrange (1) discusses the limits in Christian perfection that a soul can reach while still on this earth. He begins by addressing false ideas entertained throughout history, and then answers the question whether it is one's duty to pursue perfection or merely just a lofty goal for the spiritually minded.

Finally, Garrigou-Lagrange describes each of the ages of the spiritual life and touches on whether full perfection belongs to the ascetical (2) or mystical (3) order.

If you Google "perfection" and then click on "images," row after row after row of half-naked women appear—a bold statement, indeed, about our world today, and its shallow, earthbound culture.

The concept of perfection took on many faces throughout history. In ancient times, barbarians perceived perfection primarily in terms of fortitude. Greek philosophers attributed it to wisdom; the bible defines it through charity. Legends of famous heroes described the perfect man as one of fortitude, courage, and bravery.

In it is exalted the virtue of fortitude which has as its object difficult things that demand great energy and in which man’s life is exposed, as in combat. An element of truth is contained in this idea, so much the more so as, in less tragic but painful and rather frequent circumstances, patience, constancy, and longanimity are needed.

To make human perfection consist above all in fortitude is the idea of a warrior, a soldier, an explorer, or an aviator. Often not a little pride and at times injustice is mingled in it. This idea, moreover, certainly does not suffice to put man in his true place in regard to God and his neighbor. (4)

In a supernatural sense, fortitude relates to "soldiers of Christ."

Therefore, take unto you the armour of God, that you may be able to resist in the evil day, and to stand in all things perfect. Stand therefore, having your loins girt about with truth, and having on the breastplate of justice, and your feet shod with the preparation of the gospel of peace: In all things taking the shield of faith, wherewith you may be able to extinguish all the fiery darts of the most wicked one. (5)

St. Thomas raises the question with regard to the true grandeur of martyrdom. Is it really an act of fortitude?

But does its true grandeur come especially from the fact that it is an act of fortitude? Does it not rather derive, as St. Thomas says, from the fact that martyrdom is the incontestable and striking sign of great charity? The three centuries of persecution of the early Church were certainly centuries of courage, of heroic fortitude, but even more, centuries of love of God. Surely, this is what distinguishes the Christian martyrs from the heroes of paganism. (6)

So is fortitude the highest virtue?

Though fortitude and patience may be the most necessary in certain instances (such as battle), theology teaches that while both virtues are necessary and indispensable to perfection, several other virtues surpass them in the nature of perfection—such as justice in regard to others, prudence, and the theological virtues: faith, hope, and charity (wherein God is their immediate object).

Martyrdom, then, though truly an act of the virtue of fortitude, in reality bears its fruits primarily from a great love of God.

Garrigou-Lagrange states that one cannot surmise that Christian perfection consists solely from fortitude or patience. "Fortitude," he writes, "is evidently not the perfection of our intellect in regard to supreme truth, or that of our will in regard to sovereign good; it is merely virtue that represses fear in the midst of difficulties and dangers in order that we may follow right reason." (7)

According to the Greek philosophers, man's distinguishing characteristic from lower beings was his intellect. Thus, the pursuit of perfection focused primarily on the perfection of intellect—wisdom and knowledge of all things. In other words, perfection came in the knowledge or contemplation of the sovereign good and the love that evolved from such knowledge.

Garrigou-Lagrange argues that though wisdom is indispensable to Christian perfection, it cannot necessarily be assumed that speculation of the knowledge of God does not necessarily arouse a love of God.

A philosopher with a powerful intellect, though he has a correct idea of God, First Cause of the universe and Last End, may not be a good man, a man of good will. At times, he may be even a very bad man. That which is true is the good of the intellect, but it is not the good of the entire man, not the whole good of man. (8)

It is entirely possible—and often proved throughout time—that learning can exist without the love of God and of one’s neighbor. St. Paul, in fact, claims that to the contrary, knowledge often serves only to inflate the pride and result in one living for himself, rather than God. There is no greater proof of this than in academia throughout the world.

It is the love of God—not the knowledge of him—that proves superior.

Knowledge draws God, in a sense, toward us by imposing on Him in a certain manner the limits of our circumscribed ideas, whereas the love of God draws us toward Him and makes us love in Him what we cannot know precisely, for we are sure that His inner life, which is hidden from us, is infinitely lovable. (9)

In the course of writing about wisdom, Garrigou-Lagrange includes those Christians who may be under the false impression that they can attain perfection merely by reading of the great mystics without practicing the recommended virtues, or keeping in mind that true contemplation should be penetrated by supernatural charity and selflessness.

St. Thomas states (10) that only God can love himself infinitely as much as he is lovable and only he can have a comprehensive vision of His essence. The saints' love for God is uninterrupted; on earth, because we sleep, it is impossible.

Perfection in this world excludes everything contrary to the love of God. This includes mortal sin and anything else that redirects our love away from God. It is this union with God—the true possession of the perfect—toward which the beginners and proficients strive

According to these principles formulated by St. Thomas, the perfection of charity in the perfect excludes not only mortal sin and fully deliberate venial sin, but also voluntary imperfections, such as a lesser generosity in the service of God and the habit of acting in an imperfect manner (remissa) and of receiving the sacraments with little fervor of will.

He who has a charity equal to five talents and acts as if he had only two talents still performs meritorious but weak acts. These acts of charity, called remissi, do not immediately obtain the increase of charity that they deserve, and are not proper to the perfect, who ought indeed ever to advance more rapidly toward God, for the nearer souls approach Him, the more they are drawn by Him. (11)

In the perfect, charity presents itself to all whom they (the perfect) meet—not just friends, but to strangers and enemies as well. This fraternal charity is so intense in them as to include the sacrifice of exterior goods or even life itself for the salvation of souls.

The struggle to attain perfect charity while in this world is a never-ending battle that requires serious effort and a spirit of abnegation against the human nature's compulsion to descend toward things of this earth or revert egoistically back to us.

"For this ascent toward God," Garrigou-Lagrange writes, "we need prayer, habitual recollection, a great docility to the Holy Ghost, and the generous acceptance of the cross which purifies." He describes the charity of the perfect on earth as being ever active; it is either descending away from God, or ascending toward him. This is a result of a lack of continuity of the love of heaven.

Thomas à Kempis describes the effect of divine love best in "Imitation of Christ": (13)

Because I am yet as weak in love and imperfect in virtue, therefore do I stand in need of being strengthened and comforted by Thee. Wherefore do Thou visit me often, and instruct me in Thy holy discipline

A great thing is love—a great good in every way, which alone lighteneth all that is burdensome and beareth equally all that is unequal. For it carrieth a burden without being burdened, and maketh all else that is bitter sweet and savory. The noble love of Jesus impelleth us to do great things, and exciteth us always to desire that which is the more perfect.

Love will tend upwards and not be detained by things beneath. Love will be at liberty, and free from all worldly affection that its interior vision be not hindered; that it suffer itself not to be entangled with any temporal interest, or cast down by misfortune.

Nothing is sweeter than love, nothing stronger, nothing higher, nothing wider, nothing more pleasant, nothing fuller or better in heaven or in earth; for love is born of God and cannot rest but in God, above all created things.

The lover flieth, runneth, and rejoiceth; he is free, and cannot be restrained.

He giveth all for all, and hath all in all; because he resteth in one sovereign Good above all, from whom all good floweth and proceedeth.

He looketh not at the gifts but turneth himself, above all goods to the Giver.

Love often knoweth no measure, but groweth fervent above all measure

Love watcheth, and sleeping slumbereth not. When weary it is not tired; when straitened is not constrained; when frightened is not disturbed; but, like a vivid flame and a burning torch, it mounteth upward and securely passeth through all. (14)

This passage from "The Imitation of Christ" is, according to Garrigou-Lagrange, a fitting description of the lives of the saints in heaven. Called to this life, we must strive to attain it by sanctifying every act of our daily life.

We must always keep in mind that along with every daily deed "whether pleasurable or painful, foreseen or unforeseen," come parallel actual graces that we receive according to its merit. If we go through our day with this understanding, knowing the potential availability of graces, we will begin to perceive these daily deeds not from the senses or from reason, but from the supernatural point of view of faith.

Then these daily deeds, whether pleasurable or painful, will become the practical application of the doctrine of the Gospel, and gradually an almost continual conversation will be established between Christ and us. This will be the true interior life, as it were, eternal life begun. (15)

Next: The Grandeur of Christian Perfection and the Beatitudes


(1) Garrigou-Lagrange, Reginald, O.P., "The Three Ages of the Interior Life, Volume I," trans. Sister M. Timothea Doyle, O.P., Illinois: Tan Books, 1989, p129
(4) Garrigou-Lagrange, p145
(5) Ephesians 6:13-16
(6) See IIa IIae, q. 124, a. 1-3.
(7) Garrigou-Lagrange p147
(8) See Ia IIae, q.57, a. 1: “Whether the habits of the speculative intellect are virtues?”
(9) See Ia, q. 82, a. 3: “The love of God is better than the knowledge of God”.
(10) See IIa IIae, q. 184, a. 2.
(11) Garrigou-Lagrange, p159-60
(12) Ibid., p160
(14) The Imitation of Christ, Bk. III, chap. 5, "Of the Wonderful Effect of Love"
(15) Garrigou-Lagrange, p162